May’s relationship with Beijing got off to a rocky start: Upon assuming office, she said she wanted to review China’s investment in the nuclear power plant at Hinkley Point due to security concerns. A few weeks later, she did a U-turn and waved the project through. This indecisiveness did little to curry favor with the Chinese.
But China’s President Xi Jinping hailed her recent state visit as the beginning of a golden era in bilateral relations. In many ways, May finally picked up from where her predecessor David Cameron and his Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne had left off. They placed great emphasis on the UK’s relationship with China.
May’s efforts paid off. She could return to the UK with deals worth £9 billion ($12.8 billion), which are estimated to create as many as 2,500 jobs in Britain. And she notably did not shy away from addressing harder issues such as democracy, human rights and the environment, at least according to Downing Street’s statements on the visit.
The issue of democracy was particularly important because Britain had negotiated a “One Country, Two Systems” deal for Hong Kong when it handed its former colony over to China. There are concerns about Beijing backtracking on some of its promises under the deal.
Xi lauded Britain as one of the first signatories to, and staunchest supporters of, the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). May successfully walked a tightrope, verbally supporting China’s “One Belt One Road” initiative while not signing any formal memoranda of understanding.
There are concerns in the UK over the implementation of this megaproject aimed at rebuilding the ancient trade routes of the Silk Road. The issues are transparency, preferential treatment of Chinese businesses, and whether some of its initiatives might impact existing alliances and diplomatic arrangements, such as the EU.
The UK needs to engage with the EU to find common ground, not with the press or the British public.
So far so good, but while May was schmoozing the Chinese, her detractors were at it in Westminster. And the British press paid little attention to what she wanted to achieve in China, instead focusing on her travails back home. What a way to start a state visit.
A row had broken out in the UK over a civil service paper on the potential economic impact of Brexit. The study outlined a negative impact on gross domestic product (GDP), ranging from 8 percent down to 2 percent, depending on what sort of deal the UK is able to negotiate.
This was supposed to be an internal study. There was never any intention of sharing its outcome with the public. So May had to comment once more on the Brexit shenanigans upon her arrival in China. As her critics back home are starting to feel emboldened, she also felt compelled to state that she was not a quitter, and intended to lead her party well beyond the next general election.
The confusion over Brexit did not stop there. May also commented on EU citizens’ rights during the transition phase (the time between the formal exit from the bloc in March 2019, and the implementation of trade arrangements). The EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier had made it clear that EU citizens need to be accorded the same rights as though the UK was still a fully-fledged member during that time. May dissented vociferously.
One could argue that this was neither the time nor the place for engaging in such squabbles. It also has to be emphasized that less is more in terms of publicly staking claims while negotiating.
Wish lists belong at the negotiating table, not in the media, because they need to be networked with the opposite party if they are to be successful. He or she who shouts the loudest is often not the most successful negotiator. The UK needs to engage with the EU to find common ground, not with the press or the British public.
All of the above might have been a little bit uncomfortable for May’s hosts. They want to do deals with Britain, and they want to have more allies. But China will, in the end, be bound by the agreement the UK strikes with the EU. The endpoint of the Brexit negotiations is the starting point for the country’s relationship with other nations. It will also define the shape of the UK’s economic ties with China.
• Cornelia Meyer is a business consultant,macro-economist and energy expert.